The Oxford Martin School, a ‘Foresight College’?

The Oxford Martin School is a rather young institute in Oxford, founded only in 2005. Their main intent is ‘envisioning solutions, not listing problems’.  Central to the mission of the Oxford Martin School is the idea that their research should have an impact beyond academia, going further by working with policymakers, practitioners and business leaders to explore and address the most pressing challenges and opportunities of the 21st century.  Therefore, I think we could consider them as a ‘Foresight College’.  It is a community of more than 200 researchers, from Oxford and beyond — even including some of ‘the other university’ (read: ‘Cambridge’) — working to address the most pressing global challenges and opportunities of the 21st century. So, it is relevant following their activities for STOA and other parliamentary research services.

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I attended a couple of Oxford Martin School events the past weeks: a two-days conference on circular economy and combatting climate change and some one-hour lectures.

‘Strategic materials for a low-carbon future – From scarcity to availability’

Conference towards circular economy

2 and 3 November, a conference was organized by the Oxford Martin School, focused on circular economy and climate change. As such it was also nicely linked to one of our recently published STOA studies (Circular economy and waste management), I share some impressions and links.

The aim of the conference, which was extremely well attended by prominent academics and politicians and a diverse set of stakeholders from all over the globe, was indeed envisioning solutions, rather than listing the problem. Highlights were the introductory keynote by Sir John Beddington, setting the scene with four assumptions for the next decade: 1. No change in demographic evolution, 2. Overall more prosperity, 3. Growing urbanisation, 4. No change in climate change.

Schermafbeelding 2017-11-13 om 13.41.57Sir John is Senior Adviser, Oxford Martin School. In 2011 we had the honour, at the European Parliament, of having a STOA Lecture by Sir John Beddington, presenting the main findings of the report ‘The Future of Food and Farming (2011)’, issued by the Government Office for Science, London.


Conference highlight: Lecture by Lord Stern

Another Oxford highlight, linked to this conference, was a hugely popular Lecture by Lord Stern: standing-room only in the completely packed enormous University Examination Schools hall.

Lord Stern announcement

He gave an encouragingly optimistic view on combatting climate change. Funny question from the audience during the Q&A session: a student told he had the terrible choice to make between attending this great Lecture and completing an essay the same evening on a climate change issue Lord Stern might help him with, so he asked him the quite technical question.  At the end, the audience reminded Lord Stern he answered all questions except the student’s one, after which Lord Stern made some jokes, but eventually he put the student on the right track!

Looking for solutions towards a sustainable future, involving academics, policymakers, industry, NGOs, …

On Day Two, some industry representatives were raising doubts about the speed of the systemic transition required for a 100% circular economy.  Challenges towards a full circular economy were discussed.  For instance: more waste could be recycled – especially waste water – however, for some products 100% recycling is not environmentally friendly (it is crucial to know the optimal percentage); when rare materials become cheaper from recycling rather than mining, recycling will take over; designers should take into account the ‘end-of-life’ of their products; policy measures might be a stimulating factor towards a circular economy; the ‘nudges’ ideas developed by Nobel Prize Winner Richard Thaler (for his work on behavioural economy) were elaborated on their usefulness for recycling more batteries and so on.

The audience, with a good mix of stakeholders, was indeed more focused on solutions towards a sustainable future than on listing problems…

Oxford Martin School Lecture Series ‘Great Transitions: navigating 21st century challenges’

This lecture series is very popular and so well-attended that the Lecture Theatre of the impressive Oxford Martin School building is too small.  Those who cannot find a place to sit or stand can follow the sessions on a screen in another room, and for those you cannot physically attend, other channels are available: you can watch the one-hour seminar ‘Tipping points to the post-carbon society’, with Prof Doyne Farmer (Director of Complexity Economics – photo at the right) & Prof Cameron Hepburn (photo left), on Youtube.

Professor Cameron Hepburn, an economist with expertise in energy, resources and the environment, is Director of Economics of Sustainability and linked to the Institute for New Economic Thinking at the Oxford Martin School.

Cooperation with former European Union Fellow, Peter Vis

Cameron Hepburn also used to work together with a former EU Fellow here, Peter Vis (European Commission). During his stay at the European Studies Centre of St Antony’s College, Peter Vis co-authored with Jos Delbeke, Director-general of DG CLIMA at the European Commission, the book ‘EU Climate Policy Explained’. This book had been presented at the European University Institute in Florence two years ago.

Intensive life in Oxford

First visit from Brussels

elke-op-bezoek.jpgI was pleasantly surprised at getting an invitation from Elke Ballon to an Oxford tea (for the non-EPRS followers: Elke is Head of Unit of the On-site and Online Library Services Unit in our European parliamentary Research Service). As Elke did part of her studies in Oxford, she could guide me around some of the university buildings and explain to me some of the typical Oxford University customs and rituals.

Who’s next? 😉


Public holidays in the UK?

Meanwhile, I’m beginning to understand why Belgium is often depicted as the ‘holiday paradise’.  In November, in the European institutions the 1st and 2nd of November are public holidays. The Belgians have 1st and 11th November.  None of these three exist in the UK!

The next public holidays, or ‘Bank Holidays’ as they are known here, that are coming up in the UK are Christmas Day (25th Dec) and Boxing Day (26th Dec).

And what’s more, the Christmas season here starts very early — at least in the shops. At the beginning of October some shop windows in Oxford were already displaying Christmas items!

Short but intensive terms for the students at this top university

The terms here for the students are very short (only eight weeks) but very intensive: high pressure due to short deadlines. Some of the individual College libraries are accessible 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Even during the weekends the reading rooms are quite well used.

Oxford jargon

At the EP, we have our jargon.  Though this is also the case at Oxford: The academic year at Oxford is divided into three terms: Michaelmas (autumn), Hilary (spring), and Trinity (summer). Michaelmas Term derives its name from the Feast of St Michael and All Angels, which falls on 29 September. Hilary Term is named after the feast day of St Hilary, which falls on 14 January, while Trinity Term comes from Trinity Sunday, which falls eight weeks after Easter.

Shangai Ranking

Personally, I think it is the Oxford system of small group and even individual tutorial learning, together with the high academic level of the tutors, which drives students to work harder. That could be the secret behind the high ranking in the Shanghai ranking (world number 7). Of course I am proud that my own Alma Mater (KULeuven) also appears in the Top 100.

European Studies Centre Lecture, as EU Fellow

How will technology change our lives in Europe?

During Michaelmas Term (the first trimester of the academic year), the European Studies Centre organises a weekly ‘ESC Core Seminar’ on Tuesdays at 5 pm. On 31st October was my turn. The title was fixed a while ago, based upon my work at the European Parliament: ‘How will technology change our lives in Europe?’

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The Centre for Technology and Global Affairs co-hosted this seminar with the European Studies Centre.Lucas-Kello It was a pleasure having Dr. Lucas Kello as discussant during the seminar entitled ‘How will technology change our lives in Europe?’, where I presented how we are using foresight at the European Parliament for understanding how technology could change our lives. Lucas is senior lecturer in International Relations. He serves as Director of the Centre for Technology and Global Affairs, a major research initiative exploring the impact of modern technology on international relations, government, and society.

The seminar was chaired by Dr Othon Anastasakis of the Othon- AnastasakisEuropean Studies Centre, who also is the Director of St Antony’s South East European Studies at Oxford (SEESOX).

The seminar was an excellent occasion for me to frame the purpose of the research I plan during my stay in Oxford.

The majority of the attendees were social scientists. When I spoke, I focused on the different types of impacts of new technologies that one can envision, while explaining the foresight approach we are using at the European Parliament. I emphasised that not only intended & unintended impacts are possible, and highlighted the possible ‘hard & soft impacts‘ of techno-scientific developments.

Discussant Lucas Kello raised several related and complementary elements which fed into the debate: the pressure of policymaking with often a lack of sufficient time for reflection; the link between technical issues and behavioural issues; the volatility of the scale and pace of technological change, which makes it difficult to follow and understand the various stages of technological developments and how to state a claim in cases where there is no causal link between technology and incident.  Further, he also shared worries about ‘information security’ in the context of today’s and tomorrow’s cyberspace.

The rich debate following our talks raised many issues which I can integrate into my research regarding dealing with evidence in a policy context.

The participants were colleagues from various colleges and departments, as well as students. And I had the special pleasure of welcoming Jamie Tarlton, former trainee in our Scientific Foresight Service, working towards his PhD degree in Oxford.

And finally, in accordance with the great traditions of the College, the event was followed by a High Table dinner.

Another ESC seminar: ‘European democracy: one project or many?’

The keynote speaker at this seminar was Professor Martin Conway, Professor of Modern European History, Balliol College, one of the oldest colleges in Oxford. The event was chaired by Dr Paola Mattei (European Studies Centre – St Antony’s College). Professor Conway reflected on different forms of democracy and citizenships, diverse social classes, and the ‘marriage’ between democracy and nation/state power. He described democracy in various contexts.

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Behavioural economics Nobel Prize: great surprise on my first working day

Behavioural economics Nobel Prize

My research will focus on behavioural insight and the psychology of dealing with evidence, and on my very first working day, Monday 9 October 2017, the Nobel Prize for Economy was awarded to Richard Thaler, the img_9513-2.jpgfather of behavioural economics, for integrating economics with psychology.  A great and (at least for me) unexpected Nobel Prize winner for Economics. This made my day!

I own and read several of his writings, in English or in Dutch, in books or on my iPad, and I felt excited about this honour: it is all about psychology, behaviour, influencing people’s behaviour – preferably in an ethically responsible way.

Unexpected get-togethers the first days

We used to joke at work in Brussels that – for me – Leuven was the centre of the world.  Well, I must admit I am now tending to review this position. In St Antony’s, I even met – unexpectedly – a former EPRS intern, who is now working towards his Doctorate.  There is also a former Trainee of our Scientific Foresight Service who is a PhD student at Oxford.

In addition, I also had an inspiring meeting with a PhD student at Nuffield College (which I was linked to via other channels). Nuffield is an institution dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge in the social sciences, working closely with St Antony’s at library level.

It’s a small world…

Life in Oxford apart from work…

Student life… Oxford University Degree in shared laundry systems!

I feel like a student again… The first time in the laundry room, I queued and waited about, seemingly endlessly, in the laundry area: all the machines were ready, but the users did not show up to empty their machines.  So, with some inventiveness I freed up some machines and then waited until my wash was finished too. While waiting, I tried to understand how users were able to make sense of the instructions!


Choir singing

Oxford without musical activities?  No, that’s simply not possible!

Despite the full programme, I’ve managed to join the Oxford University Choir, where two British compositions are programmed this term: John Rutter’s Magnificat, as well as Finzi’s In Terra Pax. For the music lovers in the reading audience, the Magnificat is a great example of 20th century counterpoint piece, which I experience as ‘power of harmony’. Both works are great challenges for the (often young) singers! As In Terra Pax, it is Christmas music scored for soprano and baritone soloists. We’ll only hear at the final concert how it really sounds, with solists and orchestra.

I like choir singing (and have been doing so since the age of 5), therefore this is a welcome cultural distraction. Even more: we have rehearsals at different locations, through which I can admire the beautiful chapels of the various colleges… So far, the most impressive location has been Worcester College Chapel.


Exploring Oxford and the surroundings…

Oxford on University ‘Matriculation day’

On Saturday at the end of the first week of term, Oxford really looked like a university city. Reason: Matriculation day (a tradition unknown in Belgian universities).

Oxford Canal

During a sunny summer-like weekend (yes, this happens!), I found time for a nice walk along the Oxford Canal.

I even enjoyed a lovely lunch outside with a delicious spinach-avocado salad: some British cooks are superb! For someone born in the capital of beer (Inbev still has its Headquarters in Leuven), the local brewed beer was excellent, and I was surprised to get my dish accompanied by Belgian-looking chips (even if served without mayonnaise).


From my room, I regularly see squirrels: grey ones (American import…, seen by locals as a ‘pest’), and the nice cute dark brown ones.  The easy way to spot them is by seeing branches moving. Also in the University Parks, they are quite ubiquitous!


What is so typically British?

Stiff upper lip?

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My husband bought me this book to understand the British ‘Stiff upper lips’… (newly edited, linked to a Flemish classical radio programme). But, what he did not know: at the ESC we only have a few Britons…




Hot water

Why are mixing taps so rare here, and why is the hot water ‘very hot’ (sometimes you even get a warning)? …to make tea without needing a boiler?


Queuing politely

Further, I noticed Britains are queuing politely as long as they are in UK. Once they leave the Eurostar in Brussels, most of them are behaving like Belgians 🙂

European Union Fellowship in Oxford – first echoes…

This is my very first blog post sharing experiences as a EU Fellow in Oxford. In this post I will focus on the very first impressions and on the welcoming by the Oxford community. A few other posts will follow soon, for instance about inspiring academic events and about the practical life in Oxford.

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Getting settled in Oxford

These first two weeks were nicely occupied getting settled in my new working and living environment, in a country where many things seems to work differently (not only to drive on the left side of the road, also locks often turn the other side around, and even some taps do…).

As this is my first blog post from Oxford, I find this a good opportunity to share some information about the European Studies Centre (ESC) where I will work and conduct research this academic year, and about St Antony’s College which hosts the ESC. In the next post I will tell about some fascinating events that already took place the past two weeks.  After that, you can read about some personal experiences of my new student-like life and as a visitor in Oxford. So first, the working environment.

The European Studies Centre: a rich diversity of experts looking into the issues Europe is facing today

First, some things you need to know about the European Studies Centre (ESC). As explained in their forty-years anniversary publication (2016) by the former director professor Paul Betts, the ESC is a study center dedicated to the interdisciplinary study of Modern Europe. It hosts a rich variety of workshops and conferences on the issues facing Europe today, such as migration, inequality, border-construction, human rights, law, privacy, material culture, nation-building and EU politics.

Besides its permanent Fellows, the Centre has Visiting Fellows from several parts of the world working on European affairs. And I am proud to be one of them, coming from the European Parliamentary Research Service.  Being a ‘hard scientist’ myself (a physicist by education followed by PhD research in bio-engineering and complemented with a postgraduate in Business Administration), it is a wonderful experience being surrounded by a wide variety of social and political top scientists, post-docs and students. Amongst the typical disciplines in the ESC there are international relations, politics, sociology, history, anthropology, journalism… while I am basically a ‘hard scientist’, even though I deal with foresight methods to support politicians’ preparedness for possible future concerns and opportunities. In these two first weeks I already see an impressive potential for ‘cross-fertilisation’ between our different disciplines.

You can find more information on the staff, the academic visitors and their research interests to the ESC website:

St Antony’s College

The European Studies Centre makes part of St Antony’s College of the University of Oxford.  St Antony’s College, founded in 1950, is a cosmopolitan, vibrant community of more than 450 international graduate students specialising in the social sciences and humanities, known globally for its stimulating intellectual life and rich cultural environment. The College also hosts visiting experts from the world’s leading universities and think tanks, and offers one Senior Fellowship to the European Institutions each year. This year, for the first time, the fellowship went to the European Parliament.

The structure and funding of the university, the departments, and colleges seems rather complicated…  I wonder if you need a special degree for understanding how all entities work and how they are organized within the University of Oxford.  My easiest comparison is the University of Leuven (KU Leuven), my own Alma Mater, which has a quite transparent faculty structure.

Victorian style housing of the European Studies Centre

The EurSchermafbeelding 2017-10-23 om 20.05.25opean Studies Centre is located in a handsome Victorian house, built in the 1870’s in central north Oxford. It gives somewhat the feeling of a family house, with a cozy ‘common room’, and a high number of rooms used as offices. And in annex there is a seminar room that can fit about 60 seats. The whole setting has a kind of ‘family’ notion, which in a certain way reflects the way we work together.

Many of us are new!

Not only the visiting fellows are new at St Antony’s…

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The European Studies Centre also has a brand-new Director, Dr. Hartmut Mayer.  Hartmut joined the European Studies Centre as Director very recently: on the first of September 2017. He has been, and will remain, a Fellow and Tutor in Politics at St. Peter’s College where he has been teaching politics and international relations since 1998. Hartmut definitely is not new to the Centre! He has been involved with the ESC ever since his graduate student days at St Antony’s College, Oxford going back to 1994. Later he served in an advisory capacity and has seen the growth and changes of the Centre for more two decades. I think he will have a heavy agenda, as he is combining several director and professorship’s roles and is surrounded by staff and fellows full of new ideas. During the events we had so far, Hartmut demonstrated an amazing insight and background in a wide range of European topics.

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Further, St. Antony’s College welcomes a new Warden: Professor Roger Goodman. We had the pleasure to be invited for a welcome word and informal drink by Professor Goodman, who is the sixth Warden of St Antony’s College. (His research is mainly on Japanese education and social policy – anthropology).





Events during week 1 & 2: all with a Brexit seasoning…

A pre-history of Brexit, with Sir Ivan Rogers

For its first weekly ‘Core Seminar’ (10 October 2017) the European Studies Centre welcomed Sir Ivan Rogers, former UK Ambassador to the EU.  The seminar chair was Dr Hartmut Mayer (our ESC Director, St Antony’s College).  Fully in line with the announced title ‘A pre-history of Brexit: some thoughts on how we got here and what it means for today’s negotiations’, Sir Ivan Rogers gave remarkable reflections about the ‘pre-Brexit’ period.

This first ESC seminar of the academic year was so highly attended that the door couldn’t open anymore (no security problems: we still have the garden doors). People were even sitting on the ground to listen to Sir Ivan Rogers, and to participate at the debate.

‘Ralf Dahrendorf on Germany, Britain and Europe’ by Franziska Meifort

The second ESC Core Seminar was entitled ‘Ralf Dahrendorf on Germany, Britain and Europe’. Franziska Meifort (Carl von Ossietzky Universität, Oldenburg) just published her book: ‘Ralf Dahrendorf: Eine Biographie‘.

The seminar chair was Timothy Garton Ash (St Antony’s College) and Robert Falkner (LSE) was an interesting discussant.

Ralf Dahrendorf’s legendary exchange with Rudi Dutschke in 1968 during the student revolution is the opening scene of Franziska’s biography of the German intellectual, both in the book and talk.  She explained that, according to Jürgen Habermas, Dahrendorf probably was the most important German intellectual of his generation. Franziska Meifort conducted extensive research on this remarkable politician, and came up with a fascinating story of this great politician, which she described as a ‘public intellectual’, who felt bound by the passion of democracy and his own understanding of liberalism.

Ralf Dahrendorf (1929-2009) had been active in St Antony’s College, where a tribute event had taken place at the occasion of his 80th anniversary.

When googling Ralf Dahrendorf later, I discovered a less known and somewhat surprising element in his career, namely that he also has been European Commissioner for Research, Science and Education.

Book conversation with Lord Chris Patten: ‘First Confession: A Sort of Memoir’

A book conversation with Lord Chris Patten, Chancellor of the University of Oxford and Patron of the European Studies Centre and  Timothy Garton Ash (St Antony’s College): ‘First Confession: A Sort of Memoir’. The Chair of the event was my research sponsor, Professor Kalypso Nicolaidis (St Antony’s College).

Chris Patten brought, as an entertaining narrator, a story taking him through his personal life and career, reflecting about the world as it is today, with ISIS, Brexit and Trump. He reasoned about the danger of tabloids, about identity crises and about different ways of being a ‘nationalist’ (one of which can simply be ‘loving’ your nation). Together with professor Timothy Garton Ash, he contemplated about the link with religion and Brexit, even going back to King Hendrik VIII and Pope Clement VII. They also linking the feelings which led to BREXIT to the fact that the EU was created by the Treaty of Rome, associated with the Vatican…

Are today’s developments related to the link between identity and action? Lord Patten pointed some dangerous consequences of extreme actions related to identity, such as ISIS and Jihadism.

During this almost breathtaking event, Lord Patten told plenty of anecdotes from his childhood up to the three Prime Ministers for whom he worked (Edward Heath, Margaret Thatcher and John Major), his time as a Commissioner and his Governorship of Hong Kong (which was the last one before the ‘handover’ to China).

Read more about his book here.

Thought-provoking event ‘Who’s afraid of free speech?’, by Timothy Garton Ash

Ten Principles for a Connected World

This keynote lecture and debate by Timothy Garton Ash (St Antony’s College) was organised by St Antony’s ‘Graduate Common Room Committee’.

As announced by the organisers: ‘Timothy Garton Ash is Professor of European Studies in the University of Oxford, Isaiah Berlin Professorial Fellow at St Antony’s College, Oxford, and a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. He is the author of ten books of political writing or ‘history of the present’ and is a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books, amongst other journals.
He leads the 13-language Oxford University research project, and his latest book is Free Speech.
Awards he has received for his writing include the Somerset Maugham Award, Prix Européen de l’Essai and George Orwell Prize. In May 2017 he was awarded this year’s Charlemagne Prize.

We had an impressive lecture and debate with the promising title ‘Who’s Afraid of Free Speech’ with Professor Timothy Garton Ash, Professor of European Studies and Honorary Chair of St Antony’s College European Studies Centre. This event was highly attended by staff and students, with a lively discussion on the ‘Ten Principles for a Connected World’ developed so far.

I could recommend to visit the free speech project website on “Free expression in an interconnected world”:, in which you can participate.

In addition, the Free Speech Debate project now is looking to recruit graduate research assistants. In addition to native English speakers, the project team is looking to recruit native speakers of Spanish, French, German, Russian, Hindi, Urdu, Farsi, Turkish, Arabic, Portuguese, Japanese and Chinese to work on translation of the new generation of content on the site in relation to those language areas. They are also looking for individuals with experience and interest in social media promotion and journalism, and would like research assistants to be based in Oxford for most of the academic year. Please get in touch with them if you have any questions: (Applications expected by Monday, 13 November).


Book talk  ‘Exodus, Reckoning, Sacrifice: Three Meanings of Brexit’ by Kalypso Nicolaidis

A meandering through our great archetypal myths and a plea for a kinder Brexit

Professor Kalypso Nicolaidis (also my research sponsor) had the floor during a book talks’ event at Blackwell’s. In this saga through Brexit mythology, she asks what ‘means’ means in “Brexit means Brexit.” Kalypso offers a plea for acknowledging each other’s stories, with their many variants, ambiguities and contradictions. And in this spirit of recognition, she calls for a mutually respectful, do-no-harm Brexit – the smarter, kinder and gentler Brexit possible in our hard-edged epoch of resentment and frustration.

Looking forward to see Kalypso’s book being completed for reading it!


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Upcoming: ‘How will technologies change our lives?’

My own core seminar at the European Studies Centre is scheduled on Tuesday 31 October, 5pm, announced as ‘How will technology change our lives in Europe?’
Place: Conference Room, 70 Woodstock Road.

Warm welcome…

The welcome at the Centre and at the College was excellently organized, I received the keys of the Centre and my office immediately upon arrival. Sarah Moran, the European Studies Centre Administrator, prepared a nice welcome package and offered all kinds of useful support. And unbelievable: the IT-installation was a piece of cake. Only the set-up of my blogging platform took some time.

The college staff was immediately available for a series of little accommodation problems and they fixed what was within their reach.

Last but not at least, Julie Irving, the College’s Senior Members’ Administrator, carefully prepared all required and useful paper work, and introduced me to all relevant services.  She fixed my badge so that it literally opens all required and desired doors for me.

Welcoming events